Tory MP Anne Marie Morris was recently recorded using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at a meeting discussing how financial services would be effected by Britain leaving the EU without a deal. The leaked recording has received a large amount of backlash in the media, and as of this moment Ms. Morris has been suspended. Many people, like myself, weren’t as surprised by the comments as some. The idea of a racist Tory isn’t particularly shocking when considered beside budget cuts the Conservative government has been making which directly affect services catering to BME people in the UK. It isn’t shocking when I consider the way my mother speaks about coming to live in the UK during Margaret Thatcher’s time in office or the overt racism that typified the era.
What Anne Marie Morris’ comments do is paint a very clear image of the type of racism that exists in Britain, this insidious, casually spoken racism that rests comfortably in people’s everyday language. It’s not necessarily spoken in anger or vitriol. In school I had female friends tell me that their parents would disown them if they brought home a black boy in the same manner they might use to comment on the weather. That is what makes it so dangerous. There is no furious, aggressive assertion of “I am superior to you” screamed by racist whites. It’s said calmly, in complete earnest. It’s only natural that I’m superior to you, you look different to me.
Most would never even consider themselves to be racist. Many Conservative politicians fall into this category. Their choice of language is very indicative of their feelings but dismissed as simple rhetoric, when they should be held properly accountable as people in positions of political power.
Boris Johnson refers to Africans in the Commonwealth as “cheering crowds of flag-waving pickaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. Where he should be disavowed and rejected as racist and dangerous, he’s excused for being bumbling and posh. He is able to claim he didn’t intend to be racist, and is rewarded with eight years as the Mayor of London. David Cameron dehumanizes thousands of innocent migrants in Calais by referring to them as “swarms”. It’s dismissed as just a word, and yet it’s a word that puts an image in our minds of insects, vermin, things to be exterminated. That image feeds the imaginations of the British people and suddenly thousands of lives begin to seem utterly worthless, all because they are not British lives and feel too far removed to have any impact.
Anne Marie Morris and her peers’ language is symptomatic of a country that looks back on its imperial past full of theft, murder, and subjugation with a wistful nostalgia. If a country gains its wealth off the backs of the black and brown people they saw themselves as superior to, how could it not have racism running through its veins?
As a country, we often hold ourselves up against what we see of racism in other parts of the West like North America. In schools when we learn about the slave trade and the civil rights movement it’s in relation to the US. We see more overt displays of racism from the US in mainstream media, so in comparison people who do not experience racism in this country don’t think it exists, or if it does it’s not enough to be worth mentioning. The image that is projected out to the world is of the UK being “post-racial”. People think racism simply doesn’t happen here anymore because we see it so much but don’t perceive it as such. My dad’s Ghanaian flag being torn from his car during World Cup season is dismissed as antics of a diehard football fan. The songs we used to sing in the playground full of racist language were never picked up on by our teachers. It’s hushed, ignored, absorbed, and accepted.
This is exemplified in Anne Marie Morris’ comment, said so casually that it’s seems like a common phrase for her. It’s exemplified by the silence in response to her comments in that meeting. There was no gasp, no comment made, not even so much as a disapproving tut. No one thought twice about her language in that room. That lack of action holds a mirror up to the British public and its numbness to racist behaviour. The reflection should frighten the British public more so than the words themselves.